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Dec. 5–WASHINGTON — A House committee on Thursday passed a bill aimed at tackling the suicide epidemic plaguing the veterans and military community, after months of bickering between Democrats, Republicans and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act looks to combat the suicide crisis by giving federal funds to programs outside the VA that provide mental health care. The measure has been a major cause of friction for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, with Democrats and Republicans saying a bill designed to battle suicides should not have been so difficult to approve, given the panel’s reputation as a bastion of bipartisanship.
Despite the squabbling, the Democrat-controlled panel passed the bill down party lines. The bill now heads to the House floor for a full chamber vote and then to the GOP-controlled Senate before President Donald Trump’s approval.
Lawmakers hope the bill will help address the veteran suicides rate, which is on the rise. Of the veterans who died by suicide in 2017, 62% had not recently received treatment from the VA, according to the department. Veterans might not seek VA treatment for a number of reasons, such as a VA not being available or distrust of the department, which originally spurred the idea of a bill to provide veterans more resources outside the VA network.
Negotiations on the bill went back and forth between members of each party trying to agree on which organizations could get federal grants. Republicans, and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, issued fiery complaints that Democrats were weighing down the bill with too many stipulations, making it too difficult for smaller organizations to obtain grants — a key issue in rural areas where resources are more limited.
The breaking point for Republicans was Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the committee chairman, not allowing grants to be used for clinical care outside of the VA.
“It is unfathomable to me that we would explicitly prevent individuals that we know are at risk of harming themselves from receiving care through this or any program that is intended to serve them,” said Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, the ranking Republican of the House VA committee. “Chairman Takano advanced a partisan bill that would prohibit suicidal veterans from getting life-saving care in their local communities funded by VA. In doing so, he has let down the 20 service members and veterans who die by suicide every day.”
But Democrats argued the need for checks and balances to prevent fraud and not dishing out federal funds to just anyone claiming to be helping veterans or organizations needing VA subsidies to survive.
“The VA’s finite funds must be applied reasonably. There must be accountability. We can’t give the [VA] secretary, or future secretaries, complete authority to award grants at his or her discretion,” Takano said. “If the tables were turned, I dare say, that the minority would not want to give a secretary unfettered ability to issue out grants.”
Twitter: @StevenBeynon ___
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